Learning Like Water

Halfway through Scott Young’s TEDx talk about his attempt to complete a four-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year for just $2,000, I realized that I’ve seen it before. He describes how, despite the lack of access to professors, students, and all the other resources available to students studying at MIT, he felt that he had a certain advantage over those students. The most important of those advantages, in my view, was his ability to compress an entire class (normally spread over 3+ months) into as little as two days.

This reminded me of a concept from fluid mechanics: pipe flow. An odd connection, perhaps, but I think it is an apt one. A simplified equation (Darcy-Weisbach) for losses due to friction in pipe flow:

h_{Loss}=\frac{L}{D^2}*f(  stuff )

Where L is the pipe length, D is the diameter, and there is some other stuff in there that is not worth mentioning. The equation means that water flows more easily in a wider pipe and less easily in a longer pipe. So what does this have to do with Scott’s MIT challenge, and what point am I trying to make?

Scott removed the friction from learning with a method that widens his learning pipe by using many more resources and shortens it by rapidly progressing. His wider pipe (containing in it all the resources available to him across the internet) allows him to take many different routes to the end goal of understanding a subject.  If he doesn’t understand the video lectures, he checks the textbook or searches for an explanation on the web or asks a question on a message board (many exist, such as Physics Forums). Some of the many resources available on the internet which are rarely used by students: Google the subject, ask the question on message boards, email an expert to ask a question, watch lectures on the subject from other universities (MIT’s OCW and others), etc.

Using more resources has some pretty obvious benefits, but how does rapid progression help you learn? Over such a short time, you won’t forget what you just learned. If you don’t think about the material in the mean time, will you remember what you heard 7 lectures ago? If it was 3 weeks ago, probably not. If it was 3 hours ago, you probably will. The difference in learning, therefore, is that you will be free to make continuous progress rather than the two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine of repeated refreshers on old material. A side benefit: continuous progress is more emotionally invigorating.

So how can we normal, enrolled, 12+ credit hour per semester students merge this with the structure of college? There are definitely many challenges here. Attempting to convince teachers to change test schedules to accommodate your desires will probably be unsuccessful. A less radical change: ask to turn in all the homeworks at the same time between each test. This smaller exception would allow me to go through all the material in a few days (say 3), learn everything, and finish all the homework. Pending professor approval, this is how I’ll structure my semester. I’ll soon post my exact plan for mastering a month of material in just three days.

You may think that this is exactly like cramming the night before a test. In many ways, it is. In two key ways, it is definitely not. First, I will not have a test the next day. I won’t be stressed and frustrated; if I need more time to learn some particularly challenging idea, I have that time . Second, a deliberate method will make my studying more efficient and thorough than a scattered late-night-before-midterm cram session. I hope to soon see if that is how my system actually plays out. What are your thoughts, and do you have any other ideas on how to make this work?

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2 thoughts on “Learning Like Water

  1. Pingback: Update: Learning Like Water in College « thinkaboutEDU

  2. Pingback: Learning Like Water: The End « thinkaboutEDU

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